As a curator at MoMA PS1 and previously at SculptureCenter, Ruba Katrib has curated solo shows by artists including Cosima von Bonin, Julia Phillips, and Simone Fattal, as well as incredibly wide-ranging group exhibitions—most recently ”Theater of Operations: The Gulf Wars 1991–2011.” Though it’s only recently that we’ve crossed paths teaching at Bard, I have long been taken with the rigor and generosity of her work. In the midst of preparing for an exhibition on Niki de Saint Phalle (which has since been postponed to 2021) Ruba took a moment to ponder the state of arts institutions in a collective moment of doubt. This interview was conducted in October 2020.
Is it fair to say that arts institutions (among many other institutions) have been facing a moment of reckoning over the past year? It seems as if we’re collectively wondering whether arts endeavors warrant being at the forefront of our thinking and discussions now—and how we ought to respond, if that answer is no.
I have been asking how it is really possible to be relevant in times like these, and questioning how and why that expectation emerged. There is so much to say about this, but for starters, I feel there is a bit of self-implosion happening. Particularly around so much negative news in the broader world, but also in art worlds.
So perhaps that leads to the obvious question first: What role has the pandemic played in all this?
If I could trace a few things that were already happening prior to the pandemic, but that certainly accelerated and intensified during the period of closure, it would be the following. One was the quick move to producing for the digital realm and to social media, with arts institutions shifting from using these platforms as a way to promote on-site activities to generating new content for corporations like Instagram/Facebook. During this period, many of us started relying on social media even more, especially when we were first physically isolated from one another. At times, it was almost as if life in the physical realm was completely transplanted into social media, with museums actively participating in this as well. While an upside was that a lot of content that would normally be tethered to buildings was made more widely accessible, there was also the removal of context, the space of reception, of dialogue, and of nuance. For museums in particular, I am pretty sure that working within and for a metric of likes and views will not be in the service of producing anything that is seriously challenging or complex. The format just doesn’t allow for it.
Another ongoing conversation that became even more urgent is the reckoning around white supremacy in arts institutions and from there, issues of labor conditions, equity, and diversity. A few groups became really active; there were many Zoom roundtables on the subject. And then social media accounts dedicated to labor issues in arts institutions, from museums to galleries, emerged. It is notable that this has all been so focused on the US.
Why do you think that is?
I was talking to a friend in Switzerland the other day, and was asking her if she knew of something similar happening. She said no, not really, because in general there are much better labor laws to protect workers. While there are certainly inequities and injustices in workplaces in other parts of the world even with protections, in the absence of such broader laws and regulations in the US, it is interesting to think that there is an expectation that institutions should reform themselves from a moral standpoint just because they are in art and culture.
On the one hand, there’s the expectation of institutions becoming ever more exemplary spaces within which we can collectively reckon with “labor conditions, equity, and diversity,” as you put it. And on the other hand, as you mention earlier, there’s this institutional shift toward “generating new content for corporations like Instagram/Facebook.” These don’t seem immediately compatible.
I do believe that the museum could offer a much-needed space for complex dialogue, particularly in times of volatility. There is also something so instructive and unique in the embodied experience of being in space with an artwork, which I worry is being usurped and undervalued through trying to compete in the contemporary media sphere. It is not only the lack of context, but that the social media sphere produces its own demands and shapes both content and the conversation. Everyone should think twice about this in general, but also in relation to how art operates on these platforms.
What are those specific demands, as you see them?
The modern manifestation of the museum has its origins as a colonial and disciplining institution that directs social and cultural behavior and norms, and there has been a lot of work that has been done to combat this legacy. In a similar manner though, we could think about social media as a disciplining entity, training behavior and content in a myriad of ways. It is really pervasive, as the rest of the web and real life gets filtered through it.
It has also been revealing to see the attempts to replicate the hyperactivity of the pre-Covid art world into the digital sphere. This has a lot of implications for the physical space and sites for art. I also suspect that the hyperactivity we have seen over the last decade in art institutions doesn’t symbolize a greater investment, nor is it evidence of increased engagement with art, but that it is instead symptomatic of fear.
Fear! Of whom…or what?
Really a fear of irrelevance—of the mausoleum effect of museums that Adorno describes so well. The museum embalms whatever comes inside of its structures. Everything it touches becomes past and is memorialized. It creates distance. This is seen as a negative quality. It’s as if museums want to resist the very thing that they do. Resisting what could perhaps be uniquely offered up as a remedy to these crazy times, such as slowness, space to think, complexity, contradiction, memory, history, nuance, a non-shopping experience, etc. This is less sexy than trying to be new all the time. I do think we are witnessing a midlife crisis of sorts for contemporary art institutions. They are no longer new. And the idea that contemporary art is new is actually pretty old now.
I do think it could be more rewarding and revelatory for museums to actually dig into all of this uncertainty and anxiety more, instead of trying to always produce the correct answer. But the institution always wants to be right!
You link this midlife crisis of sorts to a “self-implosion” earlier, which feels so aptly phrased. To me, it really captures a sense that the current state of demoralization right now is somehow connected to a state of movement inward—a shrinking into the self. How is it unfolding on a museum-level? Does the “self-” portion of this self-implosion feel so pertinent because we’re literally isolated from one another?
I think it comes out of the loss of “liveness” that has become so essential for museums. This has evolved over the last decade or so, as museums have centered on “liveness” as a key objective to stave off dust and signal newness.
When you talk about “liveness,” do you mean—
In part I’m pointing to the embrace of time-based mediums like performance becoming an integral part of most exhibition programs, but in reality it is much more than this. For instance, the time-based work that has been privileged is not that which requires sustained focus or deep commitment, but is closer to the spectacle side of the spectrum. Nothing wrong with spectacle, but it has become predominant. It is how this work is being put to use in the service of the institution that should be questioned. As well as how it becomes part of the experience economy, i.e., getting bodies in the door to see bodies, which then makes static art objects in the galleries more exciting with bodies in their midst or in proximity.
In regard to this issue of “liveness”—with the relatively recent desire and need for bodies congregating in the space of the museum being largely prohibited because of a global pandemic—the solution for many seems to be putting those bodies online.
And how do you feel about that museum-led effort to congregate bodies by moving them online?
The way that bodies are used to fill the space of the museum already has a tendency towards objectification. Online, this is even more the case, and so things become increasingly fraught. Now the artist must be a spokesperson for their work in a different way entirely. Their appearance and presence are what circulate.
How do you see artists responding to the circulation of their work and presence? Or maybe I should ask: how do you hope to see them responding?
I remember in the 2000s, there was something distressing about artwork circulating online without context. There were sites like VVORK that explored this phenomenon. Now with art so fluidly circulating on and made for social media, that kind of concern seems quaint. And more than ever, the image of the artist (and all that entails) is being consumed and starting to supersede their work. I know several artists who refuse to participate in this, and then many more who are actually unable to. I am not sure there is an organic way out of this demand, and I have no idea what will come next. But it’s as if instead of just being complicit in our own destruction, we are active producers in it. I keep thinking about the Luddites, whose labor movement came to connote regressiveness. But of course, they were fighting against the exploitation of the capitalist machine and the complete instrumentalization of their livelihoods.
You’ve mentioned, elsewhere, that questions around the instrumentalization of people’s livelihoods—and, more precisely, the utopian glimpses of alternatives that can emerge from artistic communities—crop up in the research you’ve been doing for the Niki de Saint Phalle exhibition you’re curating for PS1. Can you describe the project a bit?
Yes, it was supposed to open in April, but due to the pandemic, it has now been postponed until March 2021. The exhibition focuses on Niki de Saint Phalle’s architecture (houses, parks, and playgrounds), perfume, jewelry, but mostly her built structures meant to accommodate people of all ages in new imaginings of how cities could be designed and what kind of social relations that could foster. It will also include her works around AIDS awareness, and crucially, touches on her use of art to heal her own personal traumas. Niki was one of the most famous women artists of the twentieth century, but her work is not very well understood, and it is not really even very well known in the US (even though she was half American and grew up in New York City).
Part of my interest in her, and what the show will hopefully reveal, was how she managed to work outside of established institutions of art in a radical way. She also really pushed against the grain of the notion of “progress” in a patriarchal and technological sense.
Once she embarked on becoming an artist, she became pretty quickly connected in the art world, working with her partner Jean Tinguely and within a milieu of artists like Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. But after a short stint in this scene, she more or less removed herself and basically became an outsider artist through long bouts of self-isolation while creating the Tarot Garden, a monumental sculpture garden built into a hillside in Tuscany with pavilions and inhabitable buildings that represent the twenty-two major arcana of the Tarot.
How did this Tarot Garden project help her forge a practice solidly outside established institutions?
It took over twenty years to complete Tarot Garden; it was a huge endeavor, so that was part of it. She came up with some brilliant ways of using her previously established name recognition and image to fundraise for it. She made a line of perfume and jewelry as well, both high and low end. The proceeds went to the garden, but she also was invested in making art more accessible and these products were ways that anyone could own a piece of her work. This is an idea that she developed early on with the inflatable balloons of her Nanas that she started to make in the 1960s, which she would hand out for free or sell for a really low price. Doing things like this also pushed her out of the mainstream art world a bit, because she really broke down this low-high divide in her practice. She was an iconoclast.
Debating notions of progress came up in her relationship with Tinguely, whose work engaged with the creative and destructive potential of machines. There is very comical footage of them engaged in a playful argument about their collaborative public art project in Central Park in 1968, The Fantastic Paradise. It comprised big colorful feminine bodily sculptures, the Nanas, in a battle with Jean’s menacing kinetic sculptures.
What was the gist of their argument?
Jean, while absentmindedly playing with one of Niki’s inflatable Nanas, says that the Nanas do nothing, that they are just fat and lie there, and that machines are the way of the future. Niki shoots back saying that they symbolize the human element against the machine, and that men have invented machines and the industrial age, but that things have only gotten worse. She proclaims that the Nanas instead represent the potential for a new matriarchal society.
How did she see that potential being actualized? What blueprints did she leave for the formation of that society?
She did manage to achieve a model of this with her life’s work, the aforementioned Tarot Garden. The Empress, a house in the form of a Sphinx with a mosaiced female bust, was where she lived for many years. The garden remains a remarkable piece of land art that has really gone unrecognized as such.
It sounds like you’ve also been researching Saint Phalle’s legacy in the context of a specific circle of friends who surrounded her. Can you say more?
Yes, I have been thinking about Niki in relation to American jazz musician Don Cherry and Swedish artist Moki Cherry. They were all friends. I have been writing a text for Blank Forms on Moki and Don’s work with experimental art and musical education for children that feels very connected.
Connected in what way?
Like Tinguely and Saint Phalle, Don and Moki Cherry also had a long romantic partnership and they worked together to create immersive art experiences that combined art and music. But for Don and Moki, it was a whole lifestyle approach towards openness and self sufficiency that also came out of a new period of global connectivity—they were working with and inspired by musicians from around the world, like India, Turkey, and South Africa. And they were traveling to cities outside of Europe and the US as well, although Don traveled more on his own while on tour. There are a lot of similarities between Niki’s and their approaches to creating experimental and advanced creative experiences for children, which were meant to educate through praxis and contact with a range of perspectives. For Don and Moki, they weren’t just teaching kids as students, but were working collaboratively with them as participants to produce creative music through workshops both inside and outside of the school system.
With this, I have been thinking and reading about the intersection of art and music and globalization that was taking place in the 1960s and ’70s. These are also key moments of shifting gender relations and desegregation in art and music, with international influences and exchanges, as well as glimpses of pre-neoliberal global connection—yet it was all still incredibly fraught of course.
Those glimpses of pre-neoliberal global connection: can you set the scene? What made those glimpses appealing, but also what made them so fraught? For Don and Moki Cherry, but also for their larger circle?
Early on in their relationship, Don and Moki faced challenges when they tried to live in the US as an interracial couple, but Europe was more welcoming. This is not to say that there wasn’t racism of course, but at this time Black jazz musicians from the US were well received in Europe. It is sort of interesting that these American artists, like Niki de Saint Phalle and Don Cherry, who were coming from very different backgrounds, escaped the US to get away from the social injustices they saw and experienced there. They responded to the political and social tumult of the time by creating propositions for utopias, new social formations, and alternate ways of being through their work, which focused on healing and transgressing forms of oppression. For instance, Don suffered from addiction and had to take care of himself through the creative and health-conscious domestic world that Moki made with him. Also, the situation for jazz musicians in the US was extremely exploitative.
These artists were trying to make new propositions for a free and just society. But it is important to note that while they were political, they weren’t activists. Their propositions had their limits of course, but the spirit of it all managed to escape commodification, I think because it requires a sustained connection.
By a sustained connection, you mean—
The experience of listening to Don’s music, or of wandering through Niki’s Tarot Garden requires presence and attention. In that sense, so many aspects of what they were doing still feel special today. I think an irony here, in the midst of our earlier conversation, is that these artists also forefronted experiments with forms of “liveness.” For instance, Pontus Hultén, who really pushed a lot of these practices forward in the institutions where he worked, strove for this. Don and Moki were central to his 1971 exhibition “Utopias and Visions 1871–1981” at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm. They lived and worked in a geodesic dome with their children for the seventy-two-day-long run of the show—as long as the Paris Commune. Moki talked about the kids running through the collection galleries at night while she cooked dinner in former military barracks adjacent to the museum.
Hultén had also organized the “HON” exhibition at Moderna Museet a few years earlier, which featured a sculpture—collectively made by Niki, Jean, and Per-Olof Ultvedt—of a monumental reclined Nana into which visitors could enter. Interestingly, a few years after “Utopias and Visions,” Hultén tried to recreate Don and Moki’s free-form practice for an educational program for children at the Centre Pompidou, where he was the inaugural director. He was trying to make the case for “living” art.
When you say “he was trying,” it sounds like the implication was that he never quite succeeded, at least with regard to this project?
Perhaps because he was trying to replicate something that was very organic and that came from the artists working in a specific place, it didn’t have the same effect. In this later instance, it was the institution trying to assimilate artist methodology, instead of supporting it. Years prior in 1968, he took on the artist Palle Nielsen’s proposition to make The Model at Moderna Museet, a three-week playground project inside of the galleries where kids under the age of eighteen could do and make whatever they wanted. It was chaos. Recently, I was talking to a friend of Pontus Hultén’s, who also worked with him at the Moderna Museet in the 1960s, and she described him, in this period at least, as an anarchist.
I am really drawn to this moment, and these artists and musicians, right now because they were trying to break down barriers between art forms, but also across a society that was very conservative. They centered creativity and found ways to work outside of and push up against mainstream institutions of art and music at the time. It was very uncontained. And their work is regenerative. In it, there was a lot of optimism, as well as an investment in a future that was about building creativity, collaboration, and open-mindedness in their own work, and about sharing that ethos with younger generations as well. Whereas now, I think people are probably primarily concerned with the well-being of their own children. In the US today, we live in a gerontocracy that is literally robbing the future (and even killing its own) for profit.
How do you see, for example, Hultén’s work with these fluid, uncontained communal practices and “living art” as a predecessor to institutions’ taking up of relational art, or social practice, or what have you, in later decades?
As is well known, the more mainstream parts of the 1960s counterculture folded neatly into the neoliberal project, through the privileging of the individual. But I find it interesting to think about these 1960s and ’70s experiments in contrast to the “New Institutionalism” of the 1990s and practices that have been filed under relational aesthetics, which really absorbed experimentation into a new mandate that privileged a form of innovation that really has its roots in the military-industrial complex. It was also the absorption and reification of conceptual art practice and institutional critique into the structure of the museum itself. This was all very de rigueur when I entered the art field as a student and art worker in the early 2000s. However, I see this now more as a product of neoliberalism than as resistance to it, at least what came of it. This period was so much about packaging, design, and creating feel-good and legible narratives of art, and about its institutions making immediate social change, without actually following through. It also hinged on the notion of a fluid global cosmopolitanism that was very false. I think it is actually the 1990s legacy of art and institutions that we are grappling with now—that art must provide a tangible service as well as result. This wasn’t just a trend of interactivity and workshops, as the tenets of particular forms of sociability propagated have been fully absorbed into the administration of arts institutions, yet stripped of much of their initial criticality, in order to serve elite interests and funding structures. Moreover, I think many artists have internalized the demands of the experience economy that institutions have trafficked in, whether or not their work visibly manifests this. And they should be relieved of this pressure.
Your question seems really worthwhile: how might we now be facing fallout from earlier “relational” work driven by a supposition that art—as underwritten by the neoliberal fiction of global cosmopolitanism—could lead to meaningful social change? But then what might alternate models be? Are there other, more current forms of sociability that might not just set out to enact social change, but that would “actually follow through”?
And then I wonder how these alternate models might connect to your earlier points about the shift to an online circulation of an artist’s appearance and presence. Is there something these institutions could provide—if not a tangible service—that would somehow incorporate these demands of social media, or even make them generative?
The ’90s legacy with which we are grappling assumed that the institution was a convivial place of free and open social relations. And that artists and publics wanted to be inside. Increasingly I wonder if this is the case, and what these assumptions operate on—particularly as issues of representation and “liveness” are more and more fraught. What does it mean if the museum is now doing to bodies what it has done to objects? I think the digital sphere plays a role in this growing phenomenon, by projecting out bodies and identities as commodities to be consumed. From mausoleum to vampire.
One way forward might look like arts institutions addressing, learning from, and even making a case for their limits. There are limits to the scope of reach, to context, and to understanding in the present, past, and future, and more room should be made for uncertainty and rethinking. First, there is a lot of work that needs to be done to better understand and admit these limits, and then to address them. This work is often unglamorous and unrewarded, and takes patience and dedication.
While institutions can be generators of activity, they are also importantly containers for reflection that make public something that emerged from the realm of the private, or at least, the intimate. And I think this is the dynamic that needs more consideration.